Last week, you probably saw several articles noting that the Center for Disease Control had “banned” seven words, including “science-based” and “evidence-based.” This was infuriating, especially to most of my friends. Not only did this smack of Orwell, but science and evidence are the best ways to make the best decisions we can. We see a missive to not use those words, and we see an attack on reality, especially in a world rife with “alternative facts.” We see this list of banned words, and we think “How can people be opposed to USING EVIDENCE?”
It came out later that it wasn’t that these words were banned per se, but rather, that they weren’t to be used in the drafting the budget. As reported in the New York Times, “[A] few [officials] suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans.”
Here’s the thing — while evidence should speak for itself, we humans are the ones who interpret it. On one level, evidence is what scientists use to discover truth. But there’s another profession that uses evidence, too: law. And in this case, lawyers select what data they will use, how they will present it to the jury, and then use it to make a persuasive argument.
And as psychologist Jonathan Haidt reminds us: “When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.”
Think about why you shared the news of the “banned words.” For many people, it was one of several very legitimate reasons: it fit the narrative of an administration that has been anti-science. It felt like it would have been important for people to know. It was something we needed to fight for.
But how long did you spend poring over the details, checking sources, and finding context? That takes much more time, and it also doesn’t advance those other motives. Our natural inclination – especially if we see something angering – is simply to share it. We’re much less likely to be seeking “the truth” and more likely to be seeking “an effective argument.”
The great irony is that if terms like “evidence-based” and “science-based” were intentionally avoided in order to make the bill more palatable to Congressional Republicans, in some ways, they actually were using evidence effectively for that specific job. No, they were not using it in a scientific sense, to develop a better understanding of the world. Instead, they were using it in a lawyerly sense, in order to convince the appropriate audiences to advance particular motives. They knew that in order to get funded, they would have to decide how they would present their arguments.
As we talk about evidence, we certainly need to use it as scientists do, collecting data independent of our own values, motives and biases. Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General, is absolutely correct when he says, “The purpose of science is to search for truth, and when science is censored the truth is censored.”
But we also need to remember that in the real world of politics, evidence is often used as lawyers use it – to persuade people. When we present evidence, we need to know who our audience is, why we’re presenting it, and what job we hope it will do for us.
We can talk, yell, and scream as much as we’d like. But the only way people with different values, incentives and perspectives can hear us is if we can understand where they are coming from. Evidence itself doesn’t change people’s minds.